WASHINGTON -- Duncan Belser is a college senior. That's why, he explains, his hair is falling out.
The Johns Hopkins University senior class president has outlined his life for the next few years: First, an advertising job, then maybe a stint with a public relations firm, before a return to school for a master's degree in business.
But he doesn't have that advertising job just yet; the first step is to actually graduate. And both those goals are triggering a load of anxiety.
"I've lost so much hair from that stress," Belser says, "I'm going bald."
Not all the million twenty-somethings facing an impending spring graduation are tearing their hair out. But most are feeling jittery about a litany of responsibilities that now loom for the first time: filing tax returns, buying cars, managing debt, moving into apartments, navigating office politics. Things that few parents or professors have gone over with them.
Gradually, though, help is on the way. Over the past few years, college faculties and student groups across the country have begun establishing classes or workshops geared toward supplying students like Belser with the practical know-how they need to get a grip on their personal and professional lives.
Some of these programs are semester long, for-credit classes that count toward an undergraduate degree, in business or psychology. Others are not-for-credit evening workshops and weekend lectures. In both cases, university officials say, more students are taking advantage of these "transitional" workshops and seminars.
"There's no question, interest is increasing," says John Gardner, a professor of library science at the University of South Carolina who began teaching such a class three years ago. "The demand for information has increased dramatically."
At Hopkins, Dean of Students Susan Boswell had long watched with regret as graduating seniors fell into panic attacks over their new responsibilities as commencement approached -- clueless about the practical matters of life after college.
"I wanted to pull the senior class together and start talking about the future," Boswell says.
So three years ago, she began thinking about creating a workshop for graduating seniors. Coincidentally, about the same time, the Hopkins senior class president approached her with his own similar suggestion. With Boswell and university funding behind them, the students ran with the idea and made it their own.
Drawing upon business leaders and career counselors, the Hopkins students titled their course "Disorientation" and began pairing a day of lectures and workshops with a night of social activities on the town during the last week of August, before classes start.
Since then, the class president has traditionally helped run the event, a duty that this year fell to Belser himself. The workshops he's helped organize include "Seizing Opportunities -- Employing the Internet as a Job Search Tool." Another was a financial management program, with representatives of Signet Bank and Consumer Credit Counseling Services dispensing advice on paying off loans, obtaining car insurance and staying out of debt.
For seniors, "Disorientation" has become a magnet. From its beginning three years ago, about half the members of graduating classes -- roughly 450 students each year -- have sat in on at least one workshop, double the number that Boswell said she and student leaders had expected.
His vanishing hair notwithstanding, Belser pronounces the program "very helpful in terms of providing a good, solid foundation.
"It's not going to tell you everything," he allows, but "it introduces you to posing the first sort of questions, reminds seniors that you should do some research about where you are going to be in a year, preparing for a secure financial future."
Says his classmate Robert Mittendorff: " 'Disorientation' attacks some issues that are pragmatic, but not intellectual. There were a lot of different things [the workshops] looked at that you can't get in the classroom or through the career resource center. There was one about how to interview correctly -- what you should and shouldn't do, like don't eat spaghetti [beforehand]."
At Boston University, a similar program with the MTV-like title "The Real World" has brought alumni back to lecture on finances and to discuss spirituality.
"It is nice to know there's this alumni network there if you need them," says Jessica Schoengold, a history and political science major at BU. "It was interesting to hear how these people kept in touch."
So far at the University of Maryland, College Park, only seniors in the business school receive any serious practical guidance on ,, navigating the workplace. But Kevin Carroll, the adviser to the senior council, plans to help create a program to provide a range of practical instruction for all graduating students.
A graduate student working toward a degree in student personnel, Carroll envisions a course for next fall "most likely taught by a grad student. Not a traditional didactic lecture format, but more interactive. Like giving them a couple copies of my checkbook and saying, 'Balance it.' "
The staunchest advocates of these courses credit Gardner, at the University of South Carolina, for being a sort of founding father of the movement, and its sage. Under his tutelage, USC students have kept journals detailing their changes since freshman year, discussed personal finance and followed veterans of their chosen professions through the workplace for several days.
Gardner is executive director of the 12-year-old National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition, a national clearinghouse for information on these transitional courses.
"Millions of college students graduate every year anxious, confused, in a lot of debt and trying to make major life decisions, and they are going through this without support from the university," he says.
Gardner's research center holds an annual conference on how to design and run such courses. The last conference, in November 1997, drew 400 education professionals, nearly 50 percent more than the year before.
Jim Patterson, a former student of Gardner, says he took the course because "I had not the foggiest idea what I wanted to do after I got out of college."
The best job he has ever had, Patterson says, was at a funeral home -- a job he was steered toward as a result of a career aptitude test administered in Gardner's class.
So widespread have the courses become that some companies have been established in part to respond to them.
The Delta Sigma Chi business fraternity at Miami of Ohio University, for example, sponsored an etiquette dinner last semester and brought in Ann Marie Sabath, founder of At Ease Inc., to help students learn the finer points of the business deal -- offering your boss the table salt at a lunch meeting before helping yourself or holding your fork properly at a European-style restaurant.
Peggy Newfield, founder of Personal Best Inc., conducts a similar program with business majors at College Park. She also lectures on office style and accessorizing: Women should not wear much jewelry, she cautions, and men with round faces should not wear certain collars.
"It's a lot of nit-picky things," says Marina Katovich, a senior and -- marketing major who attended Sabath's dinner. "But as long as you took something out of it and kept the idea in your minds, that's the main point."
Sabath says students like Katovich "are learning how to become street-smart. Students are hungry to be perceived as more confident. There are unwritten rules they don't get in textbooks."
Pub Date: 5/04/98